£8m used for birthday bus scheme 'can't be spent on restoring axed routes'

The West of England Metro Mayor announced a scheme to give residents free bus travel during the month of their birthdays. Credit: LDRS

The West of England metro mayor has said £8 million earmarked for a birthday bus scheme can’t be spent on restoring subsidised bus routes.

Earlier this week Dan Norris announced a new plan to give residents free bus travel during the month of their birthdays.

Starting in July, people living in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset will be able to travel for free on most buses in the region.

But the birthday bus scheme has already been criticised as a “gimmick”, while many bus routes have been axed.

The scheme will last for 12 months and is expected to cost the West of England Combined Authority about £8 million. Since it was announced on 23 May, many critics have questioned why that money couldn’t instead be spent on subsidising unprofitable bus routes.

The announcement was made with cake and a song aboard a metro bus Credit: LDRS

The money is coming from a £57 million grant given to the combined authority by the Department for Transport, called the Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP). However, there are strict restrictions on how this money can be spent, although these could soon be lifted.

Mr Norris previously said his hands were tied by the government and this money could only be spent on “new and innovative” schemes to improve bus services, including the recently launched West Link service — dial-a-ride minibuses which must be booked in advance. B

But one government minister recently indicated that the strict rules on this cash could be eased up. The easing of restrictions on the grant is expected to kick in this July, which could mean some bus routes are restored.

Speaking in the House of Commons on 17 May, Richard Holden, minister for roads and local transport, said: “I am prepared to ensure maximum flexibility in order to preserve bus routes and enhance bus routes wherever we possibly can.”

The metro mayor said he still needed to explore the details of the changes, before committing to any decisions. Speaking at a press conference when the birthday bus scheme was announced, Mr Norris said he could fund half of the cost of subsidising some important bus routes, with councils paying the other half. Previously councils have paid the full costs of the subsidies.

He said: “This is something I’ve been pressing for for a long time. We’ve had this BSIP money, we did very well in getting it, but it’s been limited in how we can use it. It’s very prescriptive. I’ve asked the government on numerous occasions over the past nine months, to say can we use it for this, and the answer has always been ‘no’.

“If it’s easing up on how it can be used, then I welcome that. But the devil will be in the detail and I’ll need to see exactly what it is they’re suggesting. If it gives us more flexibility, that’s good.

“If there’s any money left over and my officers can find some — and I don’t know yet because I haven’t looked — I would be happy to say to local councils where they’ve got subsidised buses which they think are very important, to meet me halfway and we’ll see if we can go 50–50 to keep some of these routes going.”

However, the main reason behind the birthday bus scheme, according to the metro mayor, is to change people’s habits and behaviours. Private car use is a huge contributor in the region to the climate crisis, as well as congestion and harmful air pollution — and if a lot of people use the bus instead of driving for their birthday month, some might stick with the habit permanently.

Mr Norris added: “What I can’t do is just give loads of money that should be ideally for getting behaviour change, over to just propping up a system that will stop when that money stops. We have to break through and change the patterns of behaviour so that public transport can really punch its weight, rather than do what we’ve done for a long time.

“Subsidising buses is important but it’s limited by what any government gives you at any given time. What we’ve got to do is create our own virtuous cycle so we can get people using buses and reinvest that money when it comes in.”